We had the pleasure of speaking with Deborah Aquila and Donna Morong, two of Hollywood’s top Casting Directors. As the central hub of the film and television industry, Hollywood is the gauge for who’s hot in the business. Deb and Donna have played a strong role in helping top filmmakers understand who’s hot, and who’s next.
Can you please tell us where you’re individually from and what inspired you to pursue careers in film and TV?
DM: I’m from Long Island (NY) and I grew up in a nice middle class Jewish family who came from a progressive, political background and loved the arts. My second cousin is Alan Menken, my father’s cousin is a dancer, and I have a cousin who is a violinist. The arts were really important to my family and I would say that was my primary influence. I became very interested in theater and in the idea of artists collaborating. Having a community of artists working together was a dream of mine from the time I was very young.
DA: I’m from Red Hook, Brooklyn (NY) and grew up in an Italian-American family. My father was a military man while my mother was a stay-at-home mom/housewife. My dad believed in education and in the arts. He sang like an angel and had a fierce passion for opera. My brother also had this amazing talent in music when he was quite young and he auditioned for Juilliard and got in. From there, my father started saving whatever he could to make sure we were in one theater or another every weekend.
I started out as a singer, myself, and went to a very progressive high school named Bishop Kearney High School. I had a very special person as my mentor, and her name is Sister Virginia Lake. She made me very politically and artistically aware, and I carry what she taught me throughout my life daily.
What college(s) did you attend and what were your individual majors?
DA: I received a scholarship to NYU for Theatre and studied with Stella Adler. I did my undergrad and grad work with Ms. Adler and my academics at NYU. I left performance my junior year and concentrated mostly on the theoretical part of acting. That’s how I became a teacher.
DM: I went to the University of Michigan for undergraduate school. I did a lot of mime actually. I was a psychology major and a dance minor, but I performed around the Midwest doing mime. I was very interested in experimental theatre which was really hot in the 70’s. The Ontological-Hysteric Theater was one of them. There were a lot of very formative theaters in the 70’s and it was a very important movement. Eventually, I decided to move back to New York City to study acting. I studied at HB Studios first, and then I heard about this teacher named William Esper who taught the Meisner technique and so I studied with him for two years. I was really inspired by it and went on to study at Rutgers for my Masters because I thought I wanted to teach. I wound up teaching undergraduate students there, but soon realized that if I wanted to teach, I probably had needed to do it outside of New York or LA because I really wanted to be where it was happening in the major cities. While at Rutgers, a producer introduced me to some casting directors and that’s how I discovered the world of casting. I interned at the casting office over the summer and never looked back.
Donna, you have cast some film’s top actors in their first roles; folks like Rachel McAdams, Anne Hathaway, Christian Slater, Chris Pine, Jennifer Garner, the late Heath Ledger, and the list goes on. What compels you to take a chance on an unknown actor?
DM: I was very fortunate to work as a part of the casting team at a major studio, The Walt Disney Studio. I can’t take personal responsibility for casting any actor. The process involves so much more than that and the final decision is made by producers, director in conjunction with the studio. Casting Directors or Casting Executives (which is what I was at the time) can strongly influence the process. They are champions for the talent. What compels me to take chances on a new actor is their talent, their drive, or their fearlessness and most importantly their appropriateness for the role.
DA: I think what Donna and I have is a passion for what we believe in. When we see a very talented person, it’s very thrilling for us. This just happened to us recently during a studio audition.
DM: Yes, a young woman who came out of nowhere had written this monologue that was so moving and so well performed. It was astounding!
DA: Donna and I kept looking at each other and thinking, ‘Where did she come from?’ [laughs] You don’t see it very often but that’s the beauty of our job.
DM: The actors that you mentioned (Anne Hathaway and others) each have a certain charisma, talent, star quality and great determination about them.